Propaganda and ‘Active Measures’ in Russian Information Operations


Executive Summary:

  • Russia employs various tools to influence people’s minds domestically and internationally, from “positive propaganda” to intricate “information operations.”
  • For a long time, the Kremlin’s primary propaganda narrative has been to instill the notion that truth is subjective or non-existent.
  • The core methods of such operations to achieve Moscow’s goals of destabilization include spreading disinformation, manipulating ideas and conclusions, exacerbating existing societal conflicts, and discrediting democratic societies’ fundamental values and institutions.
  • The fusion of cynicism and ideology has given rise to a distinct Russian phenomenon of “ideological cynicism.”
  • Kremlin propaganda capitalizes on contradictions within Western countries and between governments as well as politicians’ denial of real-life problems to sow discord and exacerbate societal polarization.
  • “Ideologies for export” have emerged as the most potent form of “information operation,” yet they can be countered through exposure, refutation, and showing the Kremlin’s true position on any particular issue.
  • By identifying the main strategies Moscow relies on, the West can begin crafting more effective methods for countering Russian influence operations and diminish any global support for the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine.


In analyzing the inner workings of Russian propaganda, it is essential to acknowledge its differences from approaches in the West. Moscow’s propaganda and soft power rely on information operations or “active measures” in relation to the Soviet and Russian security services. Unlike “positive propaganda,” these operations are not aimed at creating a positive image of Russia but at subversive and destructive actions toward other countries. The main goal of these measures is to demoralize and destabilize the enemy in an attempt to influence its policy for Moscow’s purposes (see EDM, July 25, 2023, January 17).

Russia is actively trying to increase the contradictions between Europe and the United States, pushing the narrative that Europe is being forced to appease the United States to the detriment of its interests (, March 8, 2023). Moscow promotes the argument that Europe cannot get out from under the continent’s “vassalage” to Washington (, August 8, 2023). Another popular theme of Russian propaganda is an attempt to sow discord between Ukraine and Europe, in particular, the belief that “Ukraine fatigue” is growing among European populations who allegedly no longer want to help the country financially or to accept its refugees (, April 1). Over the past month, the Kremlin has sought to push the narrative that the deportation of military-age Ukrainians from some European countries is almost certain (, February 7;, May 2).

The primary methods of such operations to achieve Moscow’s goals of destabilization include spreading disinformation, manipulating ideas and conclusions, exacerbating existing societal conflicts, and discrediting democratic societies’ fundamental values and institutions. The Kremlin also uses “positive propaganda,” or the promotion of seemingly innocuous images and concepts of a cultural and historical nature. A striking example is the Great Patriotic War (World War II) propaganda Moscow still relies on. Russia has used the themes of “victory over fascism” and the “feat of the people in the fight against Nazism” to demonize Western societies and justify its aggression against Ukraine. In the spring of 2020, the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia condemned Russia in an official statement for the misrepresentation of the historical events leading to World War II. They called Russian revisionism “a regrettable effort to falsify history and question the very foundation of the contemporary international order” (The Moscow Times, May 7, 2020).

Understanding exactly how the Kremlin uses certain images, terms, and “facts” in its information operations is essential for combating their effectiveness. Since Moscow’s initial invasion in 2014, Russian propagandists have been working tirelessly to portray Ukraine as a fascist state that needs to be denazified (see EDM, January 21, 2022, April 20, 2023). These dubious tropes have gained traction not only in Iran, China, and parts of the Global South but also among Western populations (see EDM, February 22, 23, March 25, April 23). By identifying the main strategies Moscow relies on, the West can begin crafting more effective methods for countering Russian influence operations and diminish any global support for the Kremlin’s war.

Information Noise and Cynicism

Russian propaganda can be divided into several primary types of influence operations depending on the desired outcomes. To begin with, “information noise” is propaganda aimed at obfuscating the truth. It is designed to confuse and compromise the target audience’s ability to think critically. This approach to disinformation does not seek to create a specific narrative among its consumers or shape their beliefs and worldviews. Instead, its purpose is to create a belief that objective truth does not exist, and that any information presented by government officials may have been fabricated. As a result, this style of propaganda promotes the notion that any allegations about crimes the Kremlin has committed should be perceived as fake, “the enemies’ activities,” and flat-out lies.

Acting in this logic, Russian propaganda claims that scenes of the dead and wounded in Ukraine are Western fakes, calling them “staged videos with artificial blood and the wounded played by actors.” Information about the consequences of sanctions and other facts about the war are also blurred (, March 15, 2022). Long before the start of the full-scale invasion, however, Kremlin propaganda convinced many Russians that the West was waging a large-scale information and psychological war against Russia (Vzglyad, March 12, 2020). As a result, most of the population became so accustomed to this idea that it has remained open to the state’s fabricated narratives about the war.

To create such an environment, Russian propagandists craft alternate versions of reality (see EDM, July 5, 2023). They question authoritative opinions, discredit all sources of information, and refute even the most innocent thesis. As a result, consumers feel they cannot trust anyone, and the “truth” takes on a more subjective dimension.

This type of propaganda dominated both outside and within Russian society during the 2000s and the first half of the 2010s. Russian historian Ivan Kurilla astutely observes that during the 2000s, the Vladimir Putin regime did not advocate for any particular ideology but rather fostered widespread cynicism, consistently exemplified in practice. According to Kurilla, this stance “directly contradicted any attempt to promote an ideology that relies on widespread trust in a particular worldview,” ultimately leading to a broad spectrum of ideological opportunism (Re-Russia, February 14).

In December 2014, Russian propaganda researcher Peter Pomerantsev explained that following the disillusion of the Soviet Union, Soviet-minded people came to power who were accustomed to “doublethink and dual faith.” They created a society where pretense triumphed through fake elections, “independent” press, “free” markets, and the illusion of justice. According to Pomerantsev, the Kremlin has now spread these tactics to the global stage. He pointed out that the Kremlin aims to sow discord and “disorient” the enemy through information warfare. “At the core of this strategy is the idea that there is no such thing as objective truth. This notion allows the Kremlin to replace facts with disinformation,” the Russian researcher wrote (, December 16, 2014). Ukrainian researchers of Russian propaganda have shared similar opinions (, June 27, 2017).

The main consequence of such tactics is the Russian population’s tolerance for false information (see EDM, April 28, 2020). When a lie begins to be perceived as a norm in society, even disproving it may not change the worldview of the propaganda’s consumer. The postulate that “truth does not exist” eliminates the motivation to check information.

Moreover, propagandists have managed to discredit fact-checking, turning it into part of the “information noise.” In 2020, Alexander Malkevich, chair of the Russian Civic Chamber’s Commission for the Development of Information Society, Media, and Mass Communications, began a comprehensive media campaign to “battle fakes,” mirroring the methods of his opponents. He started with the launch of a site to combat “false” information about COVID-19, copying the idea of the Ukrainian StopFake anti-disinformation project (RIA Novosti, April 29, 2020). In addition to the pandemic-era conspiracy theory about “microchipping,” these “social activists” also claimed that information on actual disease outbreaks or hospital closures was fake. Malkevich also took the initiative to expose “fake information about constitutional amendments,” denying any voter fraud (TASS, June 28, 2020).  The fake “unmaskers” were not concerned with providing evidence for their conclusions, believing that the average reader would not meticulously check the information. Such efforts leave the impression that objective truth does not exist, and that the information field is a “wilderness of mirrors” saturated with fiction on both sides. Against this background, the average person ceases to trust any revelations.

An intermediary phase between cynicism and the subsequent ideologization of society can be described as the construct of “geopolitics,” which Russia has actively disseminated through propaganda since 2014. The Kremlin has justified its use of propagandistic myths, such as the statement made in 2015 that “there are no Russian military personnel in Ukraine,” by arguing that they bring “geopolitical benefits” to Russia (TASS, April 16, 2015). In 2014, pro-Kremlin ideologists began asserting that Russian geopolitics serves as the “driving force of transformations in a multipolar world.” The most candid openly advocated for geopolitics to supplant ideology (, October 10, 2014). In doing so, these propagandists infused a term with significant ideological content, arguing that “geopolitics is a worldview, with the primary criterion being the confrontation between maritime and land civilizations” (Izvestiya, April 24, 2014).

In the era of hybrid warfare, Russia has also sought to transform “geopolitics” into a hybrid concept. On the one hand, the justification of violent geopolitical actions as beneficial for Russia is inherently cynical, particularly when it comes to starting wars and killing civilians. On the other hand, the target audience for such propaganda is expected to believe that such conduct on the international stage is genuinely advantageous for Russia. Six years ago, this author termed that phenomenon “ideological cynicism”—the establishment of a cult of “geopolitics” that, while cynical, remains fundamentally ideological (, March 25, 2018).

Playing on Contradictions

While the Kremlin successfully instilled cynicism within its own country, internationally, it preferred a different strategy for its information operations—namely, playing on contradictions (see EDM, April 18). This includes exacerbating contradictions that already exist in specific societies, as well as the aggravation of conflicts between different countries. In this case, the Kremlin does not attempt to create a coherent picture of the world for the victims of its propaganda but only seeks to split and destabilize other countries for its own purposes. At times, Russia acts openly in this arena by exposing old wounds and historical contradictions or pointing out the alleged negative actions of other groups in relation to certain social groups (see EDM, March 4). Earlier this year, for example, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) warned that Russia is using this tactic by potentially preparing a “false flag” operation in the unrecognized breakaway Transnistria region in Moldova. According to ISW, the Kremlin may renew its efforts to use Transnistria to create instability in Moldova to undermine Ukrainian grain exports along the western Black Sea coast (, January 11).

The Kremlin often prefers to conduct such operations under a false flag, pretending to act on behalf of the citizens of the countries it targets. A striking example of such work is the famous “troll factory” described in detail in US Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment against 13 Russians accused of meddling in the US elections. According to the document, Russians created email addresses and profiles using the names of non-existent Americans and actively distributed counterfeit messages on their behalf. Since 2014, these trolls have created web pages for organizations fighting for various causes seeking to pit everyday Americans against one another (, February 16, 2018).

Similar techniques are actively used to sow discord between allied states. On March 13, in an interview with leading Russian propagandist Dmitry Kiselyov, Putin declared, “If Poland sends troops to Ukraine, they will never leave. … They want to return the land that they consider their own” (RIA Novosti, March 13; see EDM, March 25). In June 2023, Sergey Naryshkin, head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), argued that “the dream of taking back Western Ukraine lives in the consciousness of the Polish elite.” Poland “is undertaking a series of measures to realize this dream” (Izvestiya, June 23, 2023). In this case, Moscow’s goal is to inflame tensions between Poland and Ukraine, which have become ever-closer allies in opposing Russian aggression.

Another favored technique of Moscow is to speculate on historical conflicts between the two countries to intensify the severity of these conflicts. Perhaps the most striking example is the Volynia massacre—the mass murder of Poles in Volynia and Eastern Galicia during World War II—the memory of which Moscow intensively stirs up (TASS, July 11, 2023). When convenient, Russian propaganda depicts Poland as “a victim of Ukrainian Nazism,” which they proclaim as a continuation of Hitler’s Nazism. Simultaneously, the Kremlin paints an entirely different picture of Poland as the aggressor and guilty of starting World War II, even more so than Nazi Germany (The Moscow Times, February 9). According to Aleksander Olech, an expert at the Institute of New Europe in Warsaw, any criticism of the Russian government by the Polish government in this context is perceived as ingratitude at best and, at worst, a “dark legacy” and “fascist remnants” of the past (Olech, “Polish-Czech Relations and Russian Disinformation Attempts to Disturb Them,” February 2020).

The West plays into Moscow’s hands by denying its real problems. Such absolutism undermines citizens’ trust in the government and discredits the concept of an external threat. Moreover, if fundamental problems are denied, it is impossible to solve and eradicate them, which means that external actors will continue to use them for their own purposes. Commenting on Russian interference in the 2020 elections, Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, noted that “the scale, scope and, most importantly, the impact of domestic disinformation is far greater than any foreign government could do to the United States” (Politico, September 14, 2020).

Ideologies for Export

Moscow’s “ideologies for export” represent perhaps the most sophisticated type of influence operation. This approach consists of presenting a coherent worldview, achieved by creating “mini-ideologies”—individual worldviews aimed at specific social groups, most often adherents of radical views. Many are inherently contradictory, and almost all contradict each other and the realities of life in Russia (see EDM, April 18). All of them, however, are based on the same basic principle: to portray a specific image of the global order that members of a particular social group want to believe in.

Each of these ideologies presents the image of an enemy. Moreover, this enemy is something the specific target group is already hostile toward and incites their greatest fears. For the American extreme left, the state is declared the source of all ills; for nationalists, it is the “Jewish conspiracy”; for religious fanatics, it is the image of the “liberal anti-Christ”; and so on. The key moment of constructing “ideology for export” is the connection the Kremlin makes between phenomena and processes it dislikes and the enemies and phobias mentioned above.

One example of this is the ideologies the Kremlin has created for Russian diaspora groups. For the descendants of white emigrants, who categorically do not accept the Soviet past, images and ideologies are created that emphasize the continuity of modern Russia and the Russian Empire (Pereklichka, accessed April 10).

Manifestations of the Ukrainian national identity and the pro-Western aspirations of post-Soviet countries are declared to be a product of Soviet communism and not a way of resisting it. According to the ideology of the new Russian All-Military Union, the Bolsheviks carried out the “forcible Ukrainization of Ukraine,” and Ukrainian communists supported the Maidan, not the so-called “Novorossiya” (Рereklichka, October 17, 2017). Simultaneously, official propaganda directed inside Russia, on the contrary, did not hide the fact that it dreamed of “red revenge” in “Novorossiya”—that is, the appearance of “real communists” capable of resisting Ukraine (, October 15, 2014). Representatives of the Immortal Regiment movement in Ukraine also did not hide the fact that they stand not only for preserving the memory of those who died in the fight against German Nazism but also for opposing decommunization and preserving Soviet symbols (, May 9, 2017).

This glaring contradiction exemplifies the core of “ideologies for export.” The target that the Kremlin aims to discredit is Ukrainian statehood, which is portrayed, in one instance, as linked to the “hated communists” and, in another, conversely, to the “decommunizers” who oppose the “red heroes.” Consequently, within the minds of those subjected to propaganda, a false logical correlation is distinctly formed between the discredited object and the aspects they vehemently loathe and fear, compelling them to demonize any phenomena that the Kremlin finds disagreeable.

In Russia itself, minorities—Muslims, Crimean Tatars, oppositionists, and others—are regularly accused of terrorism and do not receive support among a majority of the population (Krym.Realii, May 23, 2018). All societies treat terrorism with horror and disgust, and, therefore, the conviction that the entire “Russian non-systemic opposition is engaged in terrorism and kills its compatriots,” mainly expressed by the top officials of the state, forces people to justify any repression against oppositionists (, April 4, 2023).

Propaganda inside Russia is also built on the principle of “ideology for export,” only its audience is not a separate marginal group but the entire population. The principle of creating false associations and instilling false conclusions contributed to the fact that the Russian majority, if not supporting the war ideologically, at least treat it “with understanding.” The most successful aspect of this was the “linking” of the Western world and Ukraine to German Nazism.

Realizing that the concepts of “fascism” and, accordingly, “victors over fascism” are equally perceived as carrying emotionally rich images of “absolute evil” and “absolute good,” Russian propaganda skillfully replaces the content of these terms, thereby transferring feelings and images from the past to the present. This is how the Kremlin justifies its aggression against Ukraine, labeling the Ukrainians as “fascists” and noting their “continuity” with Nazi Germany (Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 11, 2023).

In addition to its aggressive policy toward post-Soviet countries, Moscow uses pseudo-historical constructs to justify anti-Western sentiments in general. For example, since the end of 2019, the “Military Review” website, closely associated with the Russian Ministry of Defense, began publishing a series of articles on a new version of World War II history. The site claims that the war was unleashed by the United States “against the whole world to achieve world domination” (, February 6, 2020). In another article on the same topic, “Military Review” called the European Union a “Hitlerite coalition.” Accordingly, Russia’s struggle with the West appears here as a natural continuation of the Soviet Union’s struggle against fascist Germany—that is, the clash of “absolute good” with “absolute evil”  (, December 29, 2019).


The Kremlin’s effective use of propaganda can be countered. An algorithm for constructing destructive “mini-ideologies” highlights the propaganda’s weak point—the logical chains and connecting links between the image of the enemy, the phobias generated by it, and the relatively new object of discredit. These links most often represent conspiracy theories, the refutation of which is most effective when it does not affect the fundamental values ​​of the target group but reveals only false bindings of these values ​​to erroneously selected objects.

Refuting Moscow’s ideologies aimed at target groups abroad requires determining the audiences being targeted with Russian disinformation and understanding what worldviews are being pushed and which fears are being exploited. Thus, it is essential to set realistic goals and avoid refuting different groups’ particular worldviews altogether.

In pushing back on the Kremlin’s “ideologies for export,” the West can use the following general strategies:

  • Identifying and refuting the primary false connections between Moscow’s portrayal of the “enemy,” its fears, and the institutions, values, and ideas to discredit.
  • When Russian propaganda operates under a false flag and the target group holds adverse opinions of Russia, Western countries can provide evidence that a particular information operation has Russian roots.
  • If a target group looks fondly on the Kremlin with Russia, Western governments can identify contradictions between various ideologies Moscow has created and the realities of life within Russia itself. For example, Russia positions itself as a protector of Christian values, when the percentage of active believers in Russia itself is relatively small (The Carnegie Endowment, February 9, 2017).

The proposed methods may not be sufficient to debunk Russian propaganda constructs entirely, but they can set at least a primary direction for countering the Kremlin’s destructive information operations. These “active measures” should not be underestimated. They have the potential to not only shape the attitudes of Western societies toward what is happening in Russia and Ukraine but also destabilize the situation within Western countries and aggravate social contradictions. Russian propaganda draws incorrect conclusions from these problems, using real issues from other countries to promote the propagandists’ agenda. Without knowing it, those who buy in to such conclusions can lobby for solutions that are dangerous for their own countries and the international community as a whole.